Sunday, May 20, 2018

Trappist monks subside on recipe of prayer, austerity, fruitcake

AVA, Mo. — Off the hilly blacktop and down a red dirt drive, fog sits in the Ozark pine forest.

It's early. Like 3:15 in the morning early. Someone pulls a rope and a bell tolls.

Inside an old building, Boniface, 87, the cook, rises from his bed. He's a short, slight man who grew up around Chicago and will smile through a missing front tooth if you can get him to tell an Al Capone story.

Down the hall, Thomas, the mechanic, stirs. He's 85 and spent his youth on a Wisconsin dairy farm. He still rides a bicycle.

Robert, 88, an Irishman from Minnesota, is up on the hill in a cabin no bigger than a shed. He probably hears the bell, but it doesn't wake him. He has been up since 1. He's always up at 1.

These men came here a half-century ago, or longer, and never left. They and the other Trappist monks at Assumption Abbey chucked their early lives like shirts that no longer fit and gave themselves to God.

They pray, work, meditate, chant and make fruitcakes. Fun? Of course they have fun.

According to abbey literature, for entertainment "there is the change of seasons, the song and flight of birds, the romping with the dogs in fresh fallen snow."

Resumes aren't exactly rolling in. Thus the problem.

These monks arrived here as young men, and now, though mostly spry in step and spirit, they are old. With meals still to fix, equipment to repair, grounds to tend and cakes to bake.

For a while, it looked like Assumption Abbey, established in 1950 in these woods about four hours southeast of Kansas City, would have to close.

But help is now coming from the other side of the world.

By the end of the year, four young monks from Vietnam will have arrived at this Ozarks abbey. Four more will come in 2014. Over time, perhaps a decade, Assumption will change from Trappist to Cistercian order. The two share roots — Trappist is a reform of Cistercian.

Still, there are mixed emotions, said Father Cyprian, 83.

"On one hand is the failure that we can't continue what we began," he said. "On the other, we have this place to pass along for others to carry on."

• • •

Under the question "What is a monk?" on the Assumption Abbey website, the answer begins: "A monk is a man who practices dying as a way of life."

Boniface comes across as someone who missed that memo.

He wears a red hat and bounces between stoves in the kitchen. On some days, he bakes 40 loaves of bread.

"You know the difference between a chef and a cook?" he asked as he boiled squash and eggplant. "A cook has to do his own pots and pans.

"I came here in 1954 and had no idea what I was doing when they made me cook. Singed my eyebrows the very first day. Sometimes I make must-go soup. I go through the refrigerator and say, 'This must go.' "

Then: "When I was a kid, we had to sneak off to Chicago to see The Song of Bernadette because there were too many Protestants in Oak Park."

And: "Try an oatmeal cookie. They're my job security."

Folks, he's here all week. And has been for six decades.

"Be hard to bury old Bonny and keep him down," Cyprian said with a smile.

The answer to the question "What is a monk?" goes on to say that a monk dies while releasing his egoism and his illusions about who he is and what life is about. "At the same time that he is dying, he discovers an exhilarating freedom for life and for love."

They live celibate lives and give up all possessions. If one receives cookies from a family member, he shares with the others.

Cyprian didn't choose the monastic life because of problems. He grew up in La Porte, Ind., riding his bicycle and playing ball. His father ran a gas station.

"Sure, it was a struggle at first," Cyprian said, "but then it came to me — 'Yes, this is God's will; this is the truth.' "

Jill Johnson, the abbey's guest master, who runs the office, said the most difficult thing to adjust to is the quiet.

"Particularly at night when one is dying," she said. "It can be deafening. But they are prayerful, and this is the life they chose."

• • •

Work begins in the bakery shortly after breakfast.

Some Franciscan monks, who live on part of the abbey's 3,400 acres of hills and hollows, lend needed help. Every day this crew makes 125 fruitcakes. The sale of more than 30,000 cakes a year provides the abbey its revenue stream.

Price: $32.50 for online and mail orders, $23 at the abbey gift shop.

For years before starting fruitcakes in 1990, the monks made concrete blocks.

"We had to change the recipe slightly," Cyprian joked. "And fruitcakes are easier to stack."

Each day begins with Joseph Reisch, the baker, breaking about 22 dozen eggs. The fruit mixture — pineapples, cherries, raisins, walnuts — is soaked in wine. By 9 a.m., all 125 cakes are in an oven. The same oven. It came from a St. Louis supermarket.

"This thing is built like a tank," Reisch said.

At another table, cakes baked the previous day are injected with Castillo Gold rum and the tops are decorated with pecan and cherry halves. The cakes are then brushed with corn syrup.

Finally, the monks bless the 2-pound cakes with a prayer: "Bless now these creations of our hands, that these cakes may be received as tokens of your love."

The cakes then age six weeks.

For a hermit, Father Robert, 88, sure seems happy to see company. "Hello!" he greeted his visitors a recent day.

His cabin on the hill might be 300 square feet. Big enough.

"Just God and myself," he said.

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